Reversal 1

In The Lion and the Fox (1927) Lewis observed:

the modern Irishman, led by Shaw, repudiates both the sentimental and the ineffectual, unpractical imputations [cast upon the Irish]. The irish-american business man is pointed to, his great energy and success, to controvert this picture. The tables are turned, the sentimentalism of the Saxon or German is contrasted with the good sense and unemotional wit of the Irish. The difference is maintained in its full integrity, but its qualities reversed.1  

McLuhan cited The Lion and the Fox frequently in his 1944  ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ essay on Lewis.  Presumably he read it along with other Lewis books after first meeting Lewis in Windsor in 1943. But he may, of course, have read it before this in connection with his work on Shakespeare. However this may have been, in another 1944 essay, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’, McLuhan wrote (at the very acme of his rhetorical game):

The inverted Byronic dandyism of Whitman is evident enough as soon as one applies the cipher of reversal. Put uncritical embrace of all social facts in place of fastidious scorn and withdrawal. Put pose of noble and omnivorous yokel for pose of satiated aestheticism of the worldling. Put tones of “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” for the elegant scorn of a Byronic hero excoriating mankind from a midnight crag. Put boisterous adolescent athleticism for the world-weary flaneur, and the pattern is complete. That is why Whitman was so eagerly accepted by the aesthetes who had only to make one simple adjustment, that of reversal, in order to fraternize with him.

Now McLuhan certainly didn’t first discover “the cipher of reversal” in Lewis, since this was more or less exactly what his mother exercised in her one-woman plays and impersonations. He grew up with this. But Lewis may well have reinforced his consciousness of a problematic which was implicated not only in his mother’s theatrics but in Rupert Lodge’s “comparative method” and, as doubtless carried over from Lodge, in McLuhan’s M.A. (Manitoba) and Ph.D. (Cambridge) theses.  Namely, if (as he wrote in his Manitoba thesis on Meredith) “there are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation”, types he characterized by the arts of the trivium in his Cambridge thesis on Nashe, what is the mechanism through which people ‘put on’ one of these types?  And what is the mechanism through which one type is ‘put off’ and another ‘put on’ in the ‘same’ individual or group over time?

If the agent of this “cipher of reversal” might be called the ‘hero’2, and the “definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation” her ‘roles’, then the subtitle of The Lion and the Fox — ‘the role of the hero in the plays of Shakespeare’ — might be taken to define an important problem in the arts, social sciences and, indeed, in “the presentation of self in everyday life”.3 But with this, the meaning of ‘role’ is doubled (or more).  For now it seems to be a role, namely that of the hero, that manages roles. So who is it that puts on “the role of the hero”?4 


  1. The Lion and the Fox, 1951 edition, 325. Earlier in the book Lewis cites Machiavelli’s Prince as follows: “it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And (…) to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite” (82). Lewis’ citation is from chapter XVIII of The Prince.
  2. Lewis and McLuhan use Shakespeare’s ‘hero’ and ‘king’ interchangeably. On the first page of The Lion and the Fox Lewis says that his study will treat “the role of the hero or king in Shakespeare’s plays” and later he writes of “the king-hero with which Shakespeare’s dramatic work had so much to do” (100).
  3. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is, of course, the title of one of the major works of Erving Goffman, a central figure in the Winnipeg school of communications. Like McLuhan, Goffman was born in Alberta, grew up in Manitoba and attended the University of Manitoba. Like Elsie McLuhan, Goffman’s mother was active in the theatre. Both McLuhan and Goffman took with them from Winnipeg to their careers in the east the notion that everything humans do is staged. This gave both of them new ways to approach perennial questions in their respective fields of literature/media and sociology.
  4. Cf, The Lion and the Fox: “what was the nature of Shakespeare’s identification — if such existed — with that of his characters? (…) Such a complicated person as he, would be in hourly danger of disappearing into nothingness and becoming a ghost, haunting, without dimension, only the glimpses of the moon. (…) He is, if anything, too much everything to be any particular man; and sees round and behind things so much that he presents them too completely, too universally.” (18, 20) Compare McLuhan: “In his study The Lion and the Fox Lewis considers the process of desacralizing the King.  The process of desacralizing the King, of reducing the charismatic and corporate image of the monarch to secular, individual status — this is a familiar theme in Shakespeare.  The process by which the corporate lion is destroyed by the private and individual fox is one of fragmentation. (…) The private wits or senses of man were unleashed from their corporate restraints. The Fox was pitted against the Lion. The individual found new means of rivalry with collectively organized energies.”(‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, in Letteratura/Pittura, ed G. Cianci, 1982, prepared around 1970 for a L’Herne volume but never published there. Most of ‘The Lewis Vortex’ was published as ‘Masks and Roles and the Corporate Image’, University of Toronto Varsity Graduate, 11:2, 61-64, May 1964.)